Rajadhyaksha & Willemen’s entry for the Prabhat Film Company says the following:
‘It had the largest stage floor in India and an art department under Fattelal regarded as the country’s finest. Like New Theatres, Prabhat had many stars on the payroll, well equipped sound and editing departments and its own laboratory…Prabhat pioneered new popular forms such as the Bhakti biographical or Saint films by Damle-Fattelal and socials by Shantaram.’
A few years back Everest, an Indian DVD label, released a 10 disc box set celebrating the output of the Prabhat film company. Such a release certainly helped to bring the pioneering influence of the Prabhat brand of cinema back into scholary perspective. I think I’ve said this many times before so I will say it again; the historiography of Indian cinema is in a state of flux, it is still being written since so much has still be rediscovered, archived and studied. This new documentary by Jessica Sadana and Samarth Dixit is a welcome addition to an emerging engagement with India’s filmic past and takes an affectionate look at the history of the Prabhat film company and its later acquirement by the government to serve as the site for what is now The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. One can even visit the Prabhat museum housed on the site that exhibits some of the famous props and equipment from the studio. I felt the documentary was too focused on the present and could have arguably done with more of a concerted focus on the founding members of Prabhat.
Nonetheless, interviews are conducted with people who did once work for Prabhat, constructing a narrative that relies on memory yet offering some terrific anecdotes including the memorable one about Damle (a founding member) reincarnated as a snake who wanders the grounds of the old studio. One interview in particular with a lighting technician tells of a heartbreaking story in which the camera used to film Sant Tukaram (dir. Govind Damle, 1936) was later sold for virtually nothing and ended up as a chopping board for onions! Prabhat relied greatly on the commercial and creative talents of Shantaram and his sudden departure at the end of the 1940s left a major vacuum that would be a fatal blow for a company that had the potential to keep growing as a major Indian film studio. Sadly this dream did not come to fruition, but the legacy of Prabhat was undeniably influential in shaping both the devotional and social film genres while offering a platform for the careers of many actors, directors and technicians. Overall, this is still an illuminating documentary.